Women’s presence in the cycling world has been rapidly expanding in the last ten years at both the amateur and professional level. While a true grand tour for women still seems to be out of sight, professional female cycling teams and larger races are beginning to crop up all over Europe and North America. Many well established cycling events have also begun incorporating women’s events and nearly all amateur races include women’s races with the same category divisions found in the men’s races. But with this expansion i
s it safe or responsible to say that the cycling world has truly welcomed women into the sport? Peter Sagan’s antics on the podium (pinching the behind of one of
the podium girls) at the Tour of Flanders in 2013 certainly shows that there are professional cyclists who lack respect for women. But the inequality in cycling is much more systemic than just a few riders channelling their inner troglodyte. Inequality is built into the foundations of the sport at the organizational level.
This year’s ad for the E3 Harelbeke in Belgium is a clear indication of this. The ad, which apparently is meant to poke fun at Sagan’s pinch, was offensive to say the least. It makes light of the sexual harassment which was rightly condemned when Sagan perpetrated the crime two years before. The UCI condemned the ad and ordered the race organizers to cease from using it. Aside from the fact that the tradition of having beautiful women paraded on the podium with the winners of bikes races still lives on, the UCI has made other, arguably more important steps to ensure equality in the sport. In 2012 the UCI passed a motion declaring that all prizes at UCI world events would be equal among the men and women. This was great news for professional female cyclists. Sadly however in smaller events, particularly those in North America, women are still regularly awarded significantly less prize money than men in the equivalent category. At one major race in Illinois the disparity between prize purses was $750. The men earned 75% more than the women while registration cost remained the same. In many of the Ontario Cup races the disparity is less pronounced but still exists nonetheless. At Springbank this year the women earned the same amount for first prize and slightly less for second and third than the men in the equivalent category. At the KW Classic, the prize purse was equivalent in the 1/2 categories but the junior women made less than the junior men.
Some argue that this disparity is based on number of registrants: there are more men than women in these races. It is certainly true that cycling is more popular among men but in many races the numbers are identical. In the Illinois race I mentioned, the women actually outnumbered the men in the Pro 1/2 category. But even when it is the case that men outnumber the women, number of riders should not be a factor. Pro 1/2 men, or E1/2 as it is known in Ontario, have a larger prize purse than the lower categories. This makes sense. The higher up you are in racing the more money you make. It doesn’t matter that the Masters categories often draw the largest amount of registrants, the Pro 1/2 men are theoretically the most skilled and at the highest level of ProAm racing so they earn top dollar. Therefore even in the men’s side alone, number of registered riders doesn’t affect prize purses in a particular category relative to the other categories. In fact, the registration fees of the other lower categories are used to supplement the purse of the higher categories. Pro 1/2 women, even though they are at the top of their sport, are not as valued as high as the Pro 1/2 men. Or at least this is what organizers are telling female cyclists by offering them less prize money.
Some argue, from an apparent marketing standpoint, women’s event are less popular and do not draw the same audiences (for TV and online broadcasts at least) as the men’s events do. Certainly this is true of the Tour de France, although there aren’t many events that do draw as many spectators as the Tour (it even outdid the FIFA World Cup in some markets). Because of this, there is less money made from sponsorship and media endorsements so therefore women get less of the profit. But the UCI has already declared that men and women should make the same in world events, which are the most televised and heavily endorsed. And this should play almost no role in smaller regional events which are funded primarily by registration fees.
According to Strava statistics there has been an 82% increase in female membership to Strava in the UK in the last 12 months and female cyclists have accumulated a whopping 231,114,595 kilometres over the past 12 months globally. That’s a lot of women riding bikes. And these numbers only represent Strava users who take the time to track and upload their bike rides. Female cyclists are not part of a niche market or on the periphery of the sport. According to Peopleforbikes.org women account for 55% of all bike trips in the Netherlands and 49% of bike trips in Germany. Another survey suggested that 48% of cyclists in the U.S. are women. These are numbers that clearly show the female market for cycling and cycling related products to be almost as large as it is for men. While women certainly are lagging in their choice to turn competitive, there seems to be no question that women are a big part of the cycling community. The racing world could benefit greatly by encouraging women to enter into competitive racing with equal prize purses and perks. Every aspiring athlete wants to make a living at their sport. It’s hard enough to make the pro ranks but it’s even harder to convince people to aspire for that pinnacle if they don’t believe it could be something they could do as a profession. Every athlete, before turning pro has to make it through the amateur ranks. If we want to encourage more women to enter the sport, which benefits the overall popularity of the sport and in turn benefits riders of all genders, it’s time to start treating female riders with the respect they deserve by giving them a fair prize purse.